Trayvon Martin case strikes deep chord with Baltimoreans

When 17-year-old John Edwards was shot in the head on Edmondson Avenue this month, no one marched on City Hall.

There were no comparisons to Emmett Till, no columns in national newspapers about the anxieties of growing up black and male in a country still haunted by racial divides. Baltimore Ravens did not wear hoodies in solidarity.

On average, one juvenile a month has been the victim of homicide in Baltimore over the past three years. Many, like Edwards, were written about and discussed briefly, then forgotten by all but loved ones. None have generated the kind of fervor currently focused on Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old Florida resident killed at the end of February by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman.

"I've been an activist more than half my life, and I've never seen anything like that before," said Baltimore pastor Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon, reflecting on the rally this week for Martin, which brought thousands to the steps of City Hall. "At one point in time, I was able to take a breath and see the mass of humanity, the determination in people's faces. I try to be strong, but a tear came to my eye."

Witherspoon is one of a growing number of activists who compare Martin to Till, the black 14-year-old who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955, allegedly for whistling at a white woman. Martin, they say, could be the martyr who inspires a new civil rights movement.

But why is a case 900 miles away so resonant in a city that sees more than its share of juvenile tragedies?

Community activists, pastors and professors who study race agree on two key reasons.

First, they say, Martin is an empathetic figure for all kinds of people, from college students to inner-city pastors to upper-middle-class parents of black youths. Look at the photo of the sweet-faced boy in a Hollister T-shirt or picture the teenager, pulling his hood up and sipping an Arizona iced tea like so many of his peers.

President Barack Obama seemed to frame the way a lot of people feel about Martin, saying, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon. When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids."

The second unifying aspect is a sense of injustice, a feeling that Zimmerman remains free and charged with no crime because Martin was black and he is not. Zimmerman's family has defended him, saying he's not a racist and that he was forced to shoot as Martin assaulted him.

Former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, said perceptions of the case are shaped by race. Imagine, he said, if a black neighborhood watch volunteer shot an unarmed white teenager in a gated subdivision and faced no criminal charges.

"That strikes many people, including myself, as incomprehensible," said Schmoke, now the dean at Howard University's School of Law. "There's a lot of pain for those of us who hoped that questions of race were starting to recede in public discourse."

Schmoke has offered to assist the Martin family with advice on a possible civil suit.

Baltimore has seen many cases with echoes of the same issues. In writing about the Martin case for The Miami Herald, former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon recalled a 1988 case in which elderly white homeowner Horace F. Biedermann shot and killed Brian K. Leonard, a black teenager who was allegedly stealing a motorcycle from the back of his Southwest Baltimore home.

More recently, activists questioned the way prosecutors handled a case against members of the Shomrim neighborhood patrol who allegedly beat a black teenager in a heavily Orthodox Jewish section of Northwest Baltimore.

But the Martin case, which built slowly from a local Florida crime story to the subject of weeks-long national debate, brings together a potent cocktail of images and issues that gnaw at all sectors of black America.

"He's not a kid who was standing on the street corner," said University of Maryland professor Sheri Parks in comparing Martin, a middle-class teen killed while walking to his father's fiancee's house in a gated community, to a more stereotypical homicide victim from Baltimore. "Is it right that the wider culture values his life more than that of a working-class kid? No, it's not right. But it is how the larger culture operates."

Parks was intrigued by the outrage of her College Park students, who saw themselves in Martin. They scoffed at Geraldo Rivera's comment that the teenager invited trouble by donning a hoodie, now a symbol of protest.

"That's what we do," the students told Parks. "We don't use umbrellas; that's what old people do."

The case also caused Parks and many other black writers and scholars to reflect on the perils faced by young black men, even those raised in affluent, highly educated households. Parks' husband, also a black college professor, long ago stopped telling her every time he was pulled over by police for a dubious traffic offense.

"I hope this grows into a conversation about what it means to be a black adolescent," Parks said. "African-American families often talk about how frightening it is to raise a young black boy, because he will be growing up in a police state."

It's an anxiety enhanced, many say, by laws that protect property owners who use lethal force and by the sense of division created with gated communities. Parks said the Martin case is "our opportunity to speak out about this in a way that we don't sound paranoid."

Lester Spence, a Johns Hopkins University professor who teaches about racial politics, agreed that the case has tapped into simmering anxieties. But he hopes the discussion will take on a greater complexity as details emerge of Martin's potential faults. The teenager's family has confirmed that he was suspended from school for carrying a bag with traces of marijuana, and Zimmerman told police that Martin attacked him.

"He did everything 'the right way' and he still got jacked," Spence said in explaining why Martin became such a sympathetic figure. "But I hope that we get out of that narrative to some degree. I hope people see that even if he beat … Zimmerman, he still didn't deserve to get murdered."

Spence said real progress won't happen until Americans are just as worried about what he calls "the knuckleheads," kids without spotless records who become victims of violence. Given that view, he's much happier to hear the discussion around the Martin case than the furor that developed when black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested because a white onlooker thought he was breaking into his own home.

"Even though he's a middle-class kid, Trayvon is much more like the working-class kids who get killed in Baltimore," Spence said. "The real way to get traction is to fight for those who are a little dirtier. If Trayvon Martin remains perfect in people's minds, I'm not sure we get there."

Rovena Edwards, John's grandmother, who raised him after his father died from pneumonia when John was 4 years old, said police and the community at large brush off too many killings as drug-related.

"We don't protest the way we should," said Edwards, 68. "It's not all drug-related, and that's how they look at it and nothing gets done."

The 17-year-old Edwards, the third juvenile homicide victim this year in Baltimore, was found with another victim near the Mary E. Rodman Elementary School. Police did not disclose a motive or suspects.

His grandmother said Edwards came from a "beautiful home" and followed her rules, such as a 10 p.m. curfew. She acknowledged that he had been in trouble for drugs and was attending an alternative school, but said he also took part in a summer jobs program.

Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham has rallied after more crimes than he cares to remember in his 40 years as a Baltimore activist. He rejects the idea that Martin is much different from the juveniles who die every year in his city, though he welcomes the calls for social justice prompted by the Florida case.

"We need to be just as outraged when we lose our children here in the city," Cheatham said. "I look at all of these kids the same way. We've got to get as outraged here as we did about Florida."

Cheatham said established civil rights groups, such as his National Action Network and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, can help by advising younger people on how to channel their outrage over Martin into tangible follow-ups.

It's a sentiment shared by younger activists such as Witherspoon, who led the Monday rally, and Jamal-Harrison Bryant, pastor at the Empowerment Temple AME Church in Baltimore.

More than Cheatham, however, Witherspoon and Bryant think the Martin case is the rallying cry Baltimore needs.

"I believe this case raises the ante for a generation that was maybe not engaged with civil rights," said Bryant, who wore a hoodie when he preached about Martin on Sunday. "There's the realization that this could have happened to any black youth. He was not in a nightclub, not in the alley. He wasn't doing anything seedy. He was on his way home."

Bryant said that as soon as he learned the details of the case a few weeks ago, he believed that Sanford, Fla., where Martin was shot, could be "this generation's Selma, Alabama."

Witherspoon said too many Baltimoreans know a child whose potential was squandered because of violence, and too many have seen racial profiling from authorities go unpunished. The Martin case, he said, "features a host of things people in Baltimore can relate to from their daily lives."

Those facts created a martyr for many.

"We do see this as the beginning of a new movement in Baltimore," Witherspoon said. "Or maybe a rejuvenation. There have always been pockets of activism, but what I saw on Monday [at the rally] were those pockets coming together."

Not all share the certainty about Martin's enduring importance. Spence, the Hopkins professor, said he has seen too many recent protests fizzle.

"Something has to happen to get us out of that pattern," he said. "The facts of the case alone will not do it. It has to be more than people wearing hoodies and taking pictures of themselves."

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.


What Md. leaders say

Gov. Martin O'Malley: "It is a tragic loss of life. There is a vigilante element to it that alarms a lot of people. ...There is nothing that will make it right — nothing can ever bring that little boy back. I think everybody empathized with the senseless loss and everybody's heart wants justice to be done."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake: "This is the worst nightmare for the mother of an African-American male. And I'm sure that many of them have this level of fear on a daily basis, every time their child goes out. Sometimes that fear can be tucked away, but when someone gets killed with a bottle of tea and a bag of Skittles on them, it brings those fears up to the surface."

Del. Keiffer J. Mitchell: "I have a 9-year-old son, and we talked about it. ... For every African-American father, it's one of those moments where you have a heart-to-heart with your son about the world that's out there. It was a very good conversation. ... I told him that we still live in the world where there's a small number of people who will judge you on how you look and they'll find you suspicious. ... One thing that's coming out of this is I think a lot of African-American fathers have come closer to their sons and have those serious conversations."

Schools CEO Andrés Alonso: "The loss of any child in an act of violence is a tragedy, whether it's Trayvon Martin or Marcus Harvell [a Baltimore teen killed last year]. Every loss should burn into our collective soul. When something abhorrent becomes routine — that is the greatest tragedy of all."

Cardinal Edwin F. O'Brien: "Regardless of the facts of the case, in the end another of God's children is dead, another life not fully lived, another made in His image and likeness deserving of our love and our prayers."

Baltimore Sun reporters Annie Linskey, Erica Green, Julie Scharper, Michael Dresser and Mary Gail Hare contributed to this report.